Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants - reflections from inspiring CPD

Today I was fortunate enough to attend a free conference at the UEA about maximising the impact of teaching assistants*. The presentations centred around the very helpful guidance document, 'Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants' from the Education Endowment Foundation, which does what it says on the tin. I used snippets of it in teaching assistant meetings during the last school year, but know that more needs to be done (there's always more to do isn't there?!) This report provides 7 recommendations for maximising the impact of TAs and provides guidance on effective deployment. The conference today reminded me about what this report says - and it is always good to have opportunities to refresh your memory. I highly recommend it to anyone working in the classroom.

The impact of teaching assistants has received mixed press over the years and the role has changed significantly. I don't think anyone can disagree with the guidance that they should not be used as substitute teachers for low attaining children - our least able children need consistently high quality teaching if the gap between them and their peers is to be reduced. Jonathon Sharples and Rob Webster talked about how TAs are effective when interventions are structured, high quality training is provided and TAs are prepared. Simple, common sense ideas that we aspire to at East Harling. Most of our TAs have received Read, Write inc training and our great phonics results are testament to the impact this has had. Equally, the impact of 1st Class@Number has been significant. With both of these interventions our TAs receive ongoing support and high quality training. They have guidance to refer to and although the structured lessons may make some teachers grind their teeth, they provide appropriate scaffolding for TAs to deliver high-quality lessons. When I have a TA in my maths lesson, I try really hard to give them a written plan, such as Numicon activities, so that they have something to refer back to whilst supporting a group. Quite often TAs are expected to follow a stream of verbal instructions, without being shown expectations. No wonder they sometimes get it wrong. To ensure that our support staff don't inadvertently confuse children, objectives and activities need to be clear, through appropriate guidance and careful monitoring.

Another important message was reiterated at the conference: we must ensure that TAs realise that they are not judged on the amount of work a child has completed. We are probably all guilty of thinking that children haven't done very much, but actually the conversations, thinking and experimenting that has taken place will have a greater impact in the long run. We were introduced to the concept of the 'snow plough TA', who pushes the child through the activities by providing answers and not really expecting the child to think or problem solve. We are aware of the minimal time that teachers give children to answer a question, hence the use of strategies such as think, pair, share, talking partners, popcorn etc. We were told that the average time a TA gives is 1 second ... It is our responsibility to do something about this, by training TAs appropriately. Questioning techniques are paramount too, which is why we use the Q-Chart at school - it reminds us about open and closed questions and those that promote deeper thinking. Things like this are not just for teachers, they need to be shared with everyone who works with children. A deeper understanding of the importance of this must be made explicit through training and discussions in the classroom.

Marc Rowland gave the analogy (taken from a fiction book) of people being taken up Everest with a guide, who falls to his death. Because he has not equipped the people with skills, he has merely 'pushed' them up the mountain, so they all perish too. This story got a shocked laugh from the audience and was a great way of demonstrating what happens when we don't promote independence or deep thinking. How true that many of our children develop a kind of learned helplessness because they have not been expected to try, think or struggle. 

Schools are accountable for how they deploy staff and the DISS project made it clear that it is our responsibility to fundamentally rethink how we use them, to ensure we are getting good value for money. Whilst it feels wrong to talk abut people in this way, I do agree that we need to work with the strengths of our staff. I was a TA for four years and I think I was deployed effectively for about 50% of this time. I'm sure that given the chance, most TAs could reflect on their own value in a school, and maybe there are cases where the SLT and the TA know that best use is not being made of them, but for many reasons things cannot change. One of the things that I did shortly after becoming a SENDco was to compile a TA register that showed training and skills. I believe that we deploy our TAs as well as we can, but I am also aware that there are skills that are not being used, because there are not enough hours in the day - and because sometimes it's the same children who need access to specific interventions, but how many times can you take them out of whole class activities. Incidentally, we were encouraged to do this - pick some children on the SEN register and count how many hours they spend outside the classroom. Juggling time and trying to do the best for each child can mean they are missing out on other important things in the classroom. It is a huge dilemma at times. 

There are things that I will do as soon as possible as a result of this course (purchasing the book and reading it) and some things that I haven't got round to doing, that need to be done, such as auditing TAs and trying to find ways of making time for TAs and teachers to spend more quality time together. The headteacher of St Andrew's Cof E school in Stockwell has developed some innovative ways of doing this, such as fortnightly meetings where the whole school has a music lesson whilst the TAs and teachers have CPD sessions together. The TAs are given a gap task - something to complete before the next session - which is supported by senior leaders. This culture of shared practice is having an impact, though the head acknowledges how fortunate they are to have the funding to do so. With almost 50% pupil premium, funds can be used creatively for the benefits of all children.

The Maximising TAs website has some great resources  for auditing the use of TAs, such as a deployment survey questionnaire and working in the classroom

As always, after CPD like this, I came back buzzing. Now I just need the magic fairy to whoosh a few more hours into the day!

*Where I have used TAs in this post, I am referring to all support staff in school.

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